My Pandemic Diary, Entry #50
Hello Fellow City Cooks,
It’s a beautiful Tuesday in New York City. It was a little chilly and windy when Mark and I were out for our walk this morning, but the sunshine and blue sky won the day.
This is my fiftieth diary entry. I’m trying to decide if that’s a long time or not. Seven weeks. I began writing these records about a week after the pause, as Governor Cuomo calls it, so Mark and I have now been here, at home, for two months. I began this diary for myself. I don’t have the best memory and I thought that even with the trauma of what we are all going through, I would forget the details, and more importantly, my state of mind. I knew that all would be important to remember because I expect, at least if I live long enough, that someday someone will ask me, what was that time like? What did you do? How did you feel? More important, at least to me, was to have the therapy of writing about the same topic every day. I hoped it would give me comfort and it has.
Fifty days is also just a number because we still don’t know where we are and where we’re going. Can we do another fifty days? Of course we can. We may need to. I don’t think anyone thinks this is never going to end, but how or when will it? We still don’t know that. But I personally believe that the summer will have some slight loosening, enough to go to the dentist and get a haircut. But then, come fall, unless there is a vaccine, we will again lock down and the journey will continue.
If that is the case, it may help to glean some wisdom to help get us through the continuation. Two months is a long time to have isolation and if you’re remotely a thoughtful person, it’s a long time to be constantly thinking about how we live, what we need, what is important. But I think I’ve had a few insights for myself.
I’ve always believed in community – the personal and the civic -- and being away from mine has made me value it even more. I’ve been thinking a lot about what kind of mayor my city needs. A manager, for sure, as well as someone with an independent imagination who can inspire and fix and build a city for all of us. The election is next year and it will be momentous.
I’ve also observed among my friends and family that those who have a strong and engaged interior life seem to be doing better than those who are more outer-directed. It makes sense. If we rely mostly on face-to-face engagement for stimulation or comfort, then absent that, it’s a very complex disruption. But others are quieted and gratified by their interests and curiosities and they seem happier.
And I’ve been thinking about how unexpectedly important are our domestic skills. The past decade or so has dismissed such abilities as quaint and anachronistic. Why learn how to [fill in the blank – buy a car, balance a checkbook, hem a skirt, remove a stain, make an omelet, change a lightbulb] when there’s either an app for that or you can just pay someone to do it for you? We have given up so much agency that this I-don’t-need-to-know mindset has made generations with baby soft hands and no knacks for the details of life, so when we’re suddenly all forced to be pioneer men and women, we don’t know how to do anything. We see that with cooking and grocery shopping, of course, but also sewing (if the tailor is closed, how can you replace the lost button on the shirt you need for that Zoom job interview if you don’t even own a needle and thread?), ironing (do you know how to press that shirt?), properly cleaning a house, choosing a piece of fish, and so on. I think we should bring back home economics to our public schools. Make it modern, but we should know how to take care of ourselves if our take-out and out-sourced conveniences fail. Mark knew how to replace a hard drive and hand-sew a pair of masks. There’s nothing quaint about that.
Cooking and Groceries
Last night’s dinner was the roast chicken I had meant to cook the night before, rubbed with cayenne and oregano and stuffed with a mix of croutons, feta cheese, chopped cherry tomatoes, and a bit more oregano, and finished with orzo baked in the same pan with the nearly finished bird. I also steamed a big box of spinach, which I then wrung of its excess water and dressed it with a bit of olive oil. I love this chicken recipe and have made it not just for us, but back in the normal era, also for company.
I miss cooking for other people. I have spent so many Saturdays alone in my kitchen, listening to podcasts, and happily making meals for dinner guests. When cooking for others, I think about them both in the planning of the meal and also while I cook, so that by the time they arrive, it’s like they’ve been with me all day. I think other home cooks feel the same way. Unlike restaurants, which I mostly find to be uncomfortable, abusively noisy, and unwelcoming and where the concept and practice of hospitality is very scarce indeed.
Hospitality should be a pleasure to both give and receive. And it must be genuine. I learned early on in my adult life to only cook for people you like because it’s a very personal gesture. I made this rule after having a couple of unpleasant guest experiences. Once I had a vegan (a guest of a friend) go through my trashcan to make sure the pasta I made for her had no eggs in it. Another woman called ahead to make sure my risotto would be well done and not too “mushy.” The fact that I learned how to make risotto with the great Marcella Hazan standing at my elbow as I stirred, and that I thus have some vanity in how well I make this tricky rice dish didn’t impress. Neither of these women were ever invited back and obviously the memories still sting. I guess if you do something often enough, like invite friends of friends to your table, there will be surprises. But for the many, many times I’ve cooked for other people, the experiences have been, at least for me, very gratifying. And I miss doing it.
Now, while we are at home, I only cook for Mark and me and that I love to do, but I am also acutely appreciative for how difficult it is to cook just for yourself. I’ve done it often enough to know how easy the temptation is to instead snack and kill your appetite when in fact we should do our best to have healthy meals – especially now – and to also have the comfort of giving ourselves this kind of attention.
Legendary editor and author Judith Jones was a lifelong enthusiastic and skilled home cook. After her husband died, she continued to cook for herself and in her last book, a cookbook, entitled The Pleasures of Cooking for One (available at both Amazon and at The New York Public Library as an ebook), she wrote, “Why would I want to go to all that trouble just for me? My answer is: If you like good food, why not honor yourself enough to make a pleasing meal and relish every mouthful? Of course, we want to share with others, too, but we don’t always have family and friends around.”
Until they are, we will continue to take things a day at a time, being cautious and careful and optimistic. Fifty days and counting. I am so very grateful that you are taking this journey with me.
Stay safe and have a nice dinner.